Seattle jury finds for the defendants in libel suit against Egg and I author Betty MacDonald on February 20, 1951.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/05/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8271

On February 20, 1951, a King County Superior Court jury in Seattle finds for the defendants in a libel action brought by members of the Albert Bishop family and by Raymond H. Johnson against Vashon writer Betty MacDonald (1907-1958), author of the best-selling book The Egg and I.  In so doing the jury rejects the plaintiffs' assertion that the characters of the Kettle family in The Egg and I are a thinly disguised and libelous portrayal of the Bishops, an actual Jefferson County family.

Judge William Wilkins (1897-1995) presided. Judge Wilkins had served as a member of the United States Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, was a decorated veteran of both world wars, and had been a Superior Court Judge in King County since 1939.

Were the Bishops the Kettles?

In order for the book to have been found libelous, the jury would have had to agree both that 1) the Bishops were MacDonald's Kettles and Johnson was the Indian named Crowbar, and that 2) her bitingly humorous depictions of incidents in which Crowbar and the Kettles participated exceeded actuality.

Newspaper reports initially described the plaintiffs as asking a combined $975,000 in damages, but by the time the jury began deliberations the amount was reported as $500,000.

Fiction within Nonfiction?

The question of whether Egg presented a libelous portrayal of the Bishops, an actual Jefferson County family, or a fictional account of a family of characters created by Betty MacDonald and nestled within an otherwise largely nonfictional autobiography seemed to rest on whether incidents that happened to the Kettles in the book had also happened to the Bishops in real life. Members of the Bishop family were questioned repeatedly along these lines.

On February 2, 1951, The Seattle Times reported, "Under questioning by his own attorney, George H. Crandell, (Wilbur) Bishop ... said the 'home place' of the Albert Bishop family between Chimacum and Port Ludlow, Jefferson County, was about a mile from the place where Mrs. MacDonald lived about 20 years ago. Crandell read a passage from the book describing an incident in which Pa Kettle set out to burn some trash in the backyard and burned down the barn. Crandell asked Bishop if his father, Arthur Bishop, had done this. Bishop said he had" (p. 14).

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Edith Bishop Stark's testimony that the Bishops had first discussed the possibility of legal action against MacDonald at a family reunion in July 1946. Madeline Bishop, widow of state legislator William Bishop, testified that her late sister, Suzanne Bishop, was clearly Ma Kettle but, unlike Ma, had not used profanity. When MacDonald's attorney George Guttormsen asked her if she was helping to finance the Bishop's suit she replied, "God bless you, if I had that much I'd save it" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 14, 1951, p. 1).

"I'd Have Beat Her Up" 

On February 14, Plaintiff Raymond Johnson, whom the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described as "a quarter-blood Indian" testified that he recognized himself as the character called Crowbar, and that the characters named Clamface and Geoduck were real people who went by those same names (February 14, 1951, p. 1). Johnson testified that he had been on several cougar hunts with MacDonald's first husband, Robert Heskett, as Bob and Crowbar are described as having done in The Egg and I.

A number of other Jefferson County residents testified that Egg's Kettle family was clearly recognizable as the Bishop clan. Annie McGuire, 75-year-old widow of a former Jefferson County sheriff, testified that upon reading the book she not only immediately recognized the Kettles as the Bishops but thought she saw herself in the character of Mary McGregor. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted McGuire's feelings about Betty MacDonald: "If I could have got her at the time I'd have beat her up" (February 8, 1951, p. 1).

On February 16, 1951, The Seattle Times reported, "Francis Risher, Port Orchard, said Walter Bishop approached him in July or August of 1949 to go in on the building of a dance hall at Port Townsend and a tour of 'the Kettles.' 'He said, Frank, there's a million bucks in it,' Risner testified" (p. 2).

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the same day that Dorothy M. Baird testified that at a barn dance in 1947 in front of 500 people that plaintiff Walter Bishop had introduced his father, plaintiff Albert Bishop, as Pa Kettle. The article quoted the following exchange between Baird and defense attorney Guttormsen: "'What if anything did he (Albert Bishop) have with him?' Guttormsen inquired. 'A chicken,' Mrs. Baird answered. 'And what did he do with the chicken?' 'He jiggled it from one arm to another and sort of jumped up and down,' Mrs. Baird replied."

Betty Breaks into Tears

Betty MacDonald told the court that she was not writing about the Albert Bishop farm when she described the Kettles' home, that she had not kept a diary, letters, or records of her four years on the Olympic Peninsula, and that she hadn't visited the area for 20 years. She told the court that the only living people depicted in her book were herself and members of her family, and that her intention in writing the book was to make fun of her own incompetence as a farm wife. She said she had not known the Bishops well, and had never seen some of the plaintiffs until they appeared in court.

The Seattle Times reported, "Mrs. MacDonald testified that she had lived on a farm with her mother near the Albert Bishop farm for more than a year before she married Robert Heskett and moved to the farm adjoining the Bishop place ... under stiff cross-examination by George H. Crandell, plaintiff's attorney, Mrs. MacDonald broke into tears and fled the courtroom" (February 16, 1951, p. 2).

Trial By Jury and by Flood

The drama unfolding in Judge Wilkins' courtroom was matched for Don and Betty MacDonald by equally challenging meteorological drama. Heavy rains caused flooding and landslides throughout the Puget Sound region, including particularly heavy damage to Vashon Island where the couple owned a beachfront home.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, "For hours Friday washed-out roads marooned Betty and her family in their beach home beneath a slipping clay cliff which threatened at any time to smash down and bury them ... fifty yards from the MacDonalds' front door they could look down on the twisted mess a pre-dawn avalanche had made of a neighbor's summer cottage" (February 10, 1951, p. 3). Although due in court in Seattle at 10:00 a.m., Betty could not make it to the ferry until after 11:00.

Readers of the Jury

In his closing arguments, Betty MacDonald's attorney, George Guttormsen, mentioned highway signs posted on Swansonville Road near the farm where Betty MacDonald lived during the years she described in The Egg and I. Guttormsen said the signs had been posted by a woman who lived there when Egg was published, that the woman, Anita Larson, was a sister-in-law of one of the Bishop family, and that the signs directed visitors to the farm where Larson charged money to view the home. He told the courtroom, "There could not possibly have been a connection between the book and the Bishops if these people had not deliberately come out and made that connection themselves ... . Is that Betty MacDonald's fault? The problems of the Bishop family spring from the things they've done, not what Betty has done" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 1951, p. 1).

Judge Wilkins' instructions to the jury were described in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Each of the ten cases was to be decided separately ... if the jury found the plaintiffs had been libeled they were to recover only 'nominal damages' which he said could be one dollar or under unless it had been established that they had 'suffered actual and substantial damage by the publication of the book'" (February 20, 1951, p. 1).

Judge Wilkins also instructed the members of the jury, made up of three women and nine men, to consider the book in its entirety. The jury accordingly read the entire book aloud as part of their deliberations. This took them 24 hours. It then took a ballot, which was unanimously for the defendants. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Betty MacDonald was not in court to hear the verdict but that her husband Donald was present and thanked the jury.

Anxious Days

Betty told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that she had spent the anxious day drinking cup after cup of coffee and "going crazy." She continued, "If the decision had been adverse, it might be possible for anyone to squeeze themselves into any book ... . I have had letters from people from all over the world -- from England to Bavaria -- telling me that the Kettles lived next door to them. I even had a letter from a woman who said Mrs. Kettle was her mother-in-law. She lived in Florida" (February 20, 1951, p. 3).

In his 1981 autobiography, Judge Wilkins wrote, "Betty, an attractive auburn-haired woman, was a very convincing witness. Throughout the two-weeks' trial the courtroom was crowded with people who were reading the book, following the exploits of the Kettles, and seeking Betty's autograph. It was really quite an ordeal for her" (p. 288).

The Ma and Pa Kettle characters were featured in 10 films between The Egg and I in 1947 and The Kettles On Old MacDonald's Farm in 1957. As the creator of the composite characters, Betty MacDonald received payment for each film. Crediting her literary agency, Brandt & Brandt, Betty told The Sunday Oregonian in 1947, "An agent makes money for you through channels you never dream. The whole success is exactly as if I'd won the Irish Sweepstakes" ("Old M'Donald Had A Hen ...").


Sources: Betty MacDonald, The Egg and I (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1945); "Ma and Pa Kettle," and "Kettle,"  International Movie Database website accessed August 17, 2007 (http://www.imdb.com/find?s=all&q=ma+and+pa+kettle); "Life Goes Calling On The Author Of 'The Egg and I'," Life, March 18, 1946, p. 134; Lorene Smurthwaite, "Oh, M'Donald Had A Hen; Egg It Laid Was Golden," The Sunday Oregonian, January 19, 1947; The Egg and I (film) full page display advertisement, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 29, 1947; "'Egg and I' Author Sued By Couple Asking $100,000," Ibid., March 30, 1947, p. 9; "Million Dollar Suit Opens Over 'Egg and I'," Ibid., February 6, 1951; Lucile Cohen, "Book's Laughter Absent In Court Libel Case," Ibid., February 7, 1951; Lucile Cohen, "Witness Steals Show At 'Egg and I' Trial," Ibid., February 8, 1951, p. 1; "'Egg and I' Plaintiff Declares Book Gave Him Embarrassment," Ibid., February 9, 1951, p. 5; Don Page, "New Title For Betty -- 'The Slide And I',"  Ibid., February 10, 1951, p. 3; "Island Slides Wreak Havoc," Ibid., February 10, 1951, p. 3; "Floods Drive Over 5000 From Their Homes," Ibid., February 12, 1951, p. 1; Lucille Cohen, "Witness Says He's Crowbar In 'Egg' Trial," Ibid., February 14, 1951, p. 1; Lucille Cohen, "Legal Arguments Started In 'The Egg and I' Libel Suit,"Ibid., February 15, 1951; Lucille Cohen, "'Egg' Author Denies Depicting Bishop Family In Best-Seller," Ibid., February 16, 1951, p. 1; Lucille Cohen, "Betty Tells Jurors 'The Egg' Imaginary," Ibid., February 17, 1951, p. 1; Lucille Cohen, "'The Egg and I' Libel Case In Hands Of Jury," Ibid., February 20, 1951, p. 1; Lucile Cohen, "Betty MacDonald Winner In Suit By Unanimous Verdict," ibid., February 21, 1951, p. 1; "'Egg' Author Relaxes After Suit Verdict," Ibid., February 21, 1951, p. 3; Beth Kraig, "Betty And The Bishops," Columbia, Spring 1998, p. 17-22; "Betty MacDonald Cleared In West Coast Libel Action," Publisher's Weekly, March 17, 1951, p. 344; "'Egg' Promises Plenty Gold At Box Office," The Seattle Times, March 31, 1947; Richard E. Hays, "Hollywood Raises Ceiling On Eggs," Ibid., March 7, 1946; "About People You Know," Ibid., September 1, 1946; "Betty MacDonald Gets Movie Pay Without Writing A Word," Ibid., October 15, 1949; "Betty MacDonald Flees Courtroom While Under Cross-Examination," Ibid., February 16, 1951; "Bishops Have Libel Action In 'Egg and I,' Ibid., September 28, 1947, p. 8; "'Egg and I' Suit In Court," Ibid., February 6, 1951, p. 10; "Geography And Hurt Feelings Dominate 'Egg and I' Trial," Ibid., February 7, 1951, p. 14; "'Egg and I' Bought For Colbert Film," The New York Times, April 19, 1946, p. 26; "Colbert To Star In 'The Egg and I," Ibid., July 9, 1946, p. 30; "Betty M'Donald Is Sued," Ibid., February 7, 1951, p. 27; "'Egg and I' Author Wins Suit," Ibid., February 22, 1951, p. 40; "Floods Rout Many In The Northwest," Ibid., February 11, 1951, p. 61; Eminent Judges And Lawyers of the Northwest, 1843-1955 (Palo Alto: C.W. Taylor, Jr., 1954), p. 369; William J. Wilkins, The Sword And Gavel: An Autobiography By The Last Of The Nuremberg Judges (Seattle: The Writing Works, ca. 1981), p. 286; Individual cases no. 412157-412166 consolidated as one trial, King County Superior Court records, Civil, microfilm Rolls #C4418 and C4419, Puget Sound Regional office of Washington State Archives; Case # 382791, King County Superior Court records, Civil, microfilm Roll #C4032, Puget Sound Regional office of Washington State Archives.
Note: This essay was slightly revised on October 17, 2014.

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